The Guardian's guide to holiday giving
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Beyond the lingering lines of the Westfield San Francisco Centre and past the furiously paced gift wrappers of Stonestown Galleria, like a lost menorah in a holiday haystack, there lies the oft-forgotten meaning of all of this mistletoe madness: the act of giving. The Guardian knows that decades of doling out dollars for obligatory gifts can make even the most blissful person feel like Scrooge. So this year, akin to the chain-clad ghost of Jacob Marley, we're here to remind you that the Tiny Tims of the Bay Area need your help more than that tubby teen cousin of yours needs another toy. Here are some ways you can make a real difference for someone's holiday:
The local chapter of this international alliance of volunteer organizations is a great place to start for would-be civil servants. Its Holiday Help program connects prospective volunteers with various holiday festivities, like the Support for Families of Children with Disabilities skating party, which gives the city's disabled kids a chance to get onto the ice for a little winter fun. Volunteers help them maneuver on the rink, whether in wheelchairs, on folding chairs, with tennis shoes, or on old-fashioned ice skates. Can't skate? No problem you can hand out desserts and gifts. Go to the Web site, register, then show the kids that pirouette you think you can still do.
(415) 541-7716, www.handsonbayarea.org 
This Bay Area organization serves more than 1,500 nonprofits in San Francisco and San Mateo counties, providing do-gooders with plenty of ways to make the world a better place. The preeminent local organization to find onetime and ongoing volunteer opportunities has far-ranging humanitarian prospects. Check out its Web site to make a real change in someone's life and see a real change in your own.
A tried-and-true supporter of the holiday spirit, the Salvation Army has lifted hearts in the Bay Area for more than 120 years. Help one of the country's most established and effective charity organizations by collecting donations as an iconic bell ringer, becoming a personal shopper for a low-income parent, or preparing and delivering holiday meals to the needy. Or play Santa at Toy 'n' Joy, an event that turns a warehouse into a wonderland where needy parents choose from unwrapped toys to give to their families. You can also ship toys to Santa Clara for the Caltrain Holiday Train Toy Collection. Contact Leya Copper at email@example.com  for all of the info you need to help stuff stockings that would otherwise go empty.
You might not find Santa's workshop in the heart of the Tenderloin, but you'll meet plenty of his collaborators at this faith-based community center. During the holiday season, City Impact kicks into gear by enlisting hundreds of volunteers to help with its annual Christmas toy giveaway and Christmas Day Block Party, held on a closed-off street near Jones and Eddy and featuring a "message of hope," a warm meal, and grocery handouts. Check the Web site for information on how to register to help the homeless.
(415) 292-1770, www.sf911.com 
It may not deal in reindeer, but the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals does dip its paws into holiday cheer. The animal advocates annually decorate the windows of Macy's Union Square store with adorable and adoptable critters. Volunteers greet the public, solicit donations, provide information about adoption, and, of course, frolic with all of the fuzzy little orphans. The event runs through Jan. 1, 2008.
(415) 554-3000, www.sfspca.org 
Getting involved with any of these groups should add some good old-fashioned, what-it's-all-really-about cheer to your holiday season. And if you really want to maximize your impact, keep these things in mind when volunteering:
(1) Always register for an event before showing up.
(2) Expect some dirty work. Volunteering isn't all about handing out toys to kids. You may need to do a number of unglamorous duties associated with setting up big events.
(3) Consider volunteering more than two hours out of your busy year or making a contribution to an organization that speaks to your heart. How about Wavy Gravy favorite the Seva Foundation (1786 Fifth St., Berk.; 510-845-7382, www.seva.org ), which gives aid to needy people internationally from health support in Guatemala to eye care in Tanzania? Or Heifer International (www.heifer.org ), through which you can send gifts of llamas, rabbits, and goats to communities that need them? And don't forget local nonprofits, including those helping to clean up the oil spill. *